Embracing the Liturgical Turn in Orthodoxy: Part 2

In my review of 2020’s Orthodox liturgical changes, I noted that Church leaders are determined to restore the pre-COVID status quo. I also suggested that going back to normal would result in missed opportunities.

The pandemic forced communities to adapt ways of working and living that often seemed antithetical. The negative results of adaptations are well known. Most parents, teachers, and kids don’t want to learn in all-remote environments. A Pew survey suggested that most Christians don’t want to attend virtual services and would rather resume in-person communal worship.

I’m confident that a majority of Orthodox people prefer resuming the pre-COVID status quo. Orthodox faithful are used to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers in packed churches and monasteries. Most people don’t worry about the potential pitfalls of sharing a common communion spoon. I have no doubt that people will kiss relics, icons, and the priest’s hands with the same piety with which they venerated their beloved saints before COVID arrived.

Allow me to emphasize that I have faithful who participate in liturgy consistently in mind when I speak of “most.” “Most” is not “all.” Some faithful expressed hesitance to attend in-person services during the pandemic. There are Orthodox faithful who view the sharing of a common communion spoon as potentially infectious during all periods, even outside of pandemics.

I know of clergy who argued that exempting priests, deacons, and singers from wearing masks delivered a potentially divisive message, as if it was not important to protect clergy and singers from the same pandemic that has claimed over 300,000 American lives. Multiple priests argued that it is possible to serve the entire Divine Liturgy while wearing a mask, and just as possible to sing. Sure, it was inconvenient, but it permitted the community to worship safely.

These conversations validated two simple points. First, not everyone wants to return to the pre-COVID norm. Second, it is neither necessary nor desirable for the Orthodox Church to mandate a one-size-fits-all liturgical order.

The Myth of Liturgical Uniformity

Many Christians of East and West embrace the one-size-fits-all approach as a staple of Orthodoxy. Amy Slagle’s penetrating study of Orthodox converts demonstrates that one of Orthodoxy’s main attractions was its reputation as unchanging and apostolic. Reading popular literature in particular, converts viewed Orthodoxy as an anchor and a safe harbor in an constantly changing world. Orthodoxy’s liturgical life seemed to symbolize that remarkable consistency. No matter where one travels in the world, the Orthodox Liturgy remains the same in every place.

Is this characterization accurate? Not completely.

Keeping in mind that Liturgy is an event and an act, and not a printed text, there is liturgical diversity in Orthodoxy. The so-called “Greek” version of the Liturgy of the Word differs from its Slavic sibling, mostly in the text of the antiphons. There are minor differences between the lectionary variants. Many Greek parishes begin the Cherubikon and the Great Entrance immediately after the Gospel, whereas the Slavic tradition has a series of litanies. The Greeks celebrate Orthros on Sunday morning right before Liturgy, whereas the Slavs observe it (in practice) on the eve.

These differences are not universal, and comparing the official printed texts would lead some to claim that the liturgies are identical. The liturgical experience is slightly different, enough so that some Greek faithful believe that the Great Doxology begins the Divine Liturgy (as opposed to concluding Orthros). Certainly, the two traditions share a common core, and use the same appointed order of prayers attributed to saints Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom.

These minor liturgical differences are not Church-dividing. In fact, they represent an older tradition of much more profound local liturgical independence, where a local Church could observe its own unique order completely independent of its siblings in the Orthodox commonwealth of Churches.

Certainly, major liturgical centers influenced liturgy over fairly broad geographical areas. This kind of liturgical influence permeated local Churches in two ways. First, urban liturgy established patterns adopted by parishes in the surrounding region. The liturgy of Constantinople’s Great Church is a typical example, evidenced by the claim that this order is followed by all of the churches. Second, urban liturgy influenced neighboring churches through pilgrimage, the gifting of relics, and on occasion, by strength.

Despite liturgical convergences, locals tended to defend their native liturgical traditions. St. Ambrose’s defense of the footwashing ceremony in Milan is one early example. Nikon’s resistance to adopting popular hymnography on the Black Mountain was another. St. Symeon’s (of Thessalonika) testimony to retaining the Constantinopolitan cathedral ordo, despite the hegemony of the Athonite liturgical tradition that emerged during the apogee of the hesychast movement, is yet another.

These examples show a certain resistance to liturgical uniformity pushed by major centers of the Christian West and East.

(NB: resistance to the introduction of liturgical traditions on the periphery of a center is one of Baumstark’s famous liturgical laws)

Liturgical Uniformity: Not Necessary

There are many points to be taken from these lessons (and there are many examples). The most important of these is that the one-size-fits-all approach is not necessary. It is perfectly legitimate for a local Church to cultivate and maintain its own unique tradition, and to resist, and even refuse, coerced adoption of a uniform order imposed by an major liturgical center – especially one bearing the authority of an important prelate.

Sometimes, there are good reasons for promoting liturgical uniformity, especially if it has the capacity to remove abuses or correct doctrinal errors. In the Orthodox East, the invention of the printing press granted the appearance of liturgical uniformity, and many Church leaders attempted to implement it to promote Orthodox unity, perhaps epitomized by the controversy surrounding the other Nikon, of Moscow in the seventeenth century.

Liturgy as Event, not Text

Today, the published texts grant the appearance of uniformity. The actual liturgical events show that local diversity continues to prevail, at varying degrees. It is also essential to note that liturgical diversity was not a mere accommodation of “the weak,” but the product of an organic process of liturgical development.

The Liturgical Turn: Embracing Diversity

The pandemic forced the Church to find new ways of gathering in obedience to God’s command to assemble for prayer and fellowship in remembrance of Christ. Some of these liturgical adaptations can serve lifegiving purposes in the post-COVID epoch, and need not be discarded as accommodations of the weak. The following list begins to describe how embracing the liturgical turn as an opportunity to witness could continue to breathe life into the Church so that it can “be Church.”

  • Make Virtual Confession permanent. Society learned how to function at home during the pandemic. Home became the cell for everything – working, learning, living, and worship. Home is also the place for repentance. Virtual confession opens the possibility for more conversation, guidance, and forgiveness to be given, received, and witnessed. It also makes it possible for mobile Christians to maintain their relationship with their chosen confessor, since location is no longer an obstacle. This does not mean that confession should become virtual only – but much good can come for making the option of virtual confession permanent.
  • Sustain Small Group Worship. The demands of work and life do not permit everyone to participate in Sunday Liturgy. Some people cannot devote half a day to a Sunday liturgy. It is wise to sustain the practice of multiple liturgies per week. Another option is to add two Typica services with communion to each week, with deacons presiding. This would contribute to the necessary revival of the diaconate and create another opportunity for people to assemble as their schedules permit.
  • Maintain Alternative Gestures of Veneration. David Power argued convincingly that symbols are multivalent. There is more than one way to express veneration for God, the saints, and the appointed officers of the Church. Some people are uncomfortable with physical contact – this does not mean that they intend to disrespect God’s presence. The Church should continue to invite and encourage faithful to express veneration and respect for God’s presence in icons, relics, and ministers – and the Church should encourage people to do so with reverent bows without contact, if they are uncomfortable with kisses and embraces.
  • Multiple Methods for Holy Communion. In the first installment of this series, I reviewed the many methods the Church adopted for distributing holy communion. It is simply not necessary for the Church to demand uniform re-adoption of the common communion spoon. The Church has always had more than one way to observe the Lord’s commandment to offer Eucharist and receive Christ reverently. Using one spoon has become the norm, but Christ did not command his disciples to use one spoon – he commanded us to share the meal of the Eucharist. This is a practical issue, not a doctrinal one. It is perfectly legitimate for communities to use multiple spoons, intinction, or to restore the more traditional practice of receiving the Lord’s body in the hand, and then the cup, separately. In this case, what is needed is mutual respect – to honor those who choose to share one spoon, and also those who exercise Christian freedom to observe Christ’s commandment with a slightly different, but equally venerable ritual order.
  • A Short Order for the Divine Liturgy. Infectious disease experts emphasized the need to limit the amount of time groups of people are gathered indoors. While the Orthodox Churches implemented recommended changes, priests were largely on their own in determining the length of service. Pastors often omit select components from the Liturgy to accommodate schedule demands. The publication of an order of Divine Liturgy in Extraordinary Circumstances – presumably including a pandemic – would assist pastors in their efforts to celebrate Liturgy safely and responsibly. Creating such an order is both possible and desirable, and only one obstacle prevents it. This obstacle is the notion that a shorter service diminishes the quality of the Liturgy. The principle that applies to the methods for distributing holy communion are equally applicable here: the Church is required to assemble, to pray, praise, hear the word of God, and offer thanksgiving. It is possible to remain both faithful and Orthodox while celebrating liturgy responsibly and safely.
  • Theological Exploration of Communion and the Church’s obligations to the public. The vast majority of Orthodox discourse on COVID and Liturgy concerned the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sanctity of the common communal spoon. The Church strived to retain as much of its ordinary practice as possible. This is understandable, but COVID’s impact on society has been dramatic and catastrophic. The fundamental human need for assistance in essentials is enormous. Food insecurity is at alarmingly high levels. People lack basic health care and shelter. Many children have struggled to learn in remote and virtual environments. Orthodox discussion of COVID did not address the depth of societal suffering. Orthodox humanitarian agencies certainly attempted to address the need, but one wonders how much more could have been done at the local level. Perhaps parishes could have identified partners to contribute to food pantries, assist the needy with health care, offer volunteers for tutoring children, and provide parish space for children to learn in safe environments. The issue at hand is the Church’s conception of its relation to society.

The desire to maintain a healthy separation of Church and state is reasonable, but the matter of the Church’s civic responsibility is a different matter. In very plain words – the Church is a part of a suffering world and has a responsibility to enact solidarity with the suffering and intervene on their behalf, in as much as this is possible. The Church can offer a beautiful civil service through some critical self-reflection on the true meaning of communion. This begins with admitting Christian error in loving objects and things more than our own neighbors with whom we share this world. COVID offers us the opportunity to reclaim the real meaning of communion – one that requires us to defend the most vulnerable humans in our very midst.   

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